'Gotham' Recap: The Killing Joke

Why so serious: Did the greatest villain in comics just make his debut?

Dr. Leslie Thompkins (Morena Baccarin) and Det. James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) question a circus performer's son (Cameron Monaghan, far right) on 'Gotham.' Credit: Jessica Miglio/FOX

Circus acrobats. Sideshow performers. Criminal clowns. An axe murder. A giggling psychopath. A big-top score torn straight from the Danny Elfman songbook. Is it any wonder that the most Batman-esque episode of Gotham so far is also its best?

Written by showrunner Bruno Heller and directed by Jeffrey Hunt, tonight's episode — "The Blind Fortune Teller" — is a blast from the Tim Burton past. Unafraid to embrace the Bat-milieu at its most comic-book outlandish, this stellar installment backs up the bombast with deft, witty writing. And, of course, it reveals the Joker in the deck.

Or does it? Heller has been cagey about Jerome, the gibbering ginger played by Shameless star Cameron Monaghan, refusing to outright label him the Caped Crusader's future archnemesis. On the one hand, that's good mythos management: The Joker has no official origin, a fact Heath Ledger's interpretation of the character got a lot of murderous mileage out of in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. ("You wanna know how I got these scars?") He could be anyone and no one — a big part of his terrifying allure.

On the other hand, Gotham's reluctance to call Jerome the J-word could just be another example of genre television's post-Lost fixation on mystery over meaning. Raise a bunch of questions, promise "the answers," throw the audience a bunch of red herrings (or in this case a redhead), rinse, repeat. And if the series is teasing their Joker-to-be only to eventually reveal otherwise, it'd hardly be the first time a superhero show faked out its audience.

So what's the best strategy for enjoying the character, in all his villainous potential? Ignore Jack Nicholson's advice and don't think about the future. Just appreciate Jerome for what he is: a little jolt of Joker-esque mirth and mayhem. He's surrounded by the Cirque du Insanity trappings that have come with the character ever since creators Jerry Robinson, Bill Finger, and Bob Kane thought him up. Does Monaghan lay it on a little thick? You bet. So what? This is (maybe) the most famously gleeful, gloriously over-the-top supervillain we're talking about here. Restraint is not his strong suit. If you can't camp it up as the Clown Prince of Crime, what has this society come to?

At any rate, his performance prior to slipping off the mask of sanity was unnerving enough as it is. Witness his exchange with Detective Jim Gordon about his mom's promiscuity: "How did you feel about your mother's love life?" "I feel fine about it. If not for my mother's love life, I wouldn't be here, would I?" He goes on to describe sex as a natural part of life in terms Maude Lebowski would appreciate, but you can't shake the sensation that this kid's open-mindedness conceals a black hole in his brain. As Dr. Leslie Thompkins describes the boy's mindset later, "It was ugly, but it was also kind of thrilling. Thrilling and scary. Like looking down a deep, dark tunnel."

Jerome is not the only noteworthy newcomer in the episode. The Flying Graysons, the trapeze-artist side of the family feud that gave Jerome cover for the murder of his mom, are the family of future Robin Dick Grayson; chances are he's the son that John Grayson offered to name after Gordon. Ever since Burton had the Joker pull the trigger on Bruce Wayne's parents, live-action superhero adaptations have had a tendency to combine the origins of its heroes and villains; tying the two major circus-themed characters in Batman's cast together in this way makes perfect sense.

Then there's Cicero, the sideshow psychic of the episode's title, played by Mark Margolis. (That's Tio Salamanca from Breaking Bad, in case the name rang a bell for you. Ding ding ding!) This dude's a delight. His dialogue is articulate and unpredictable: Responding to Gordon's snarky dismissal of his message "from beyond the grave," he deadpans "I don't think sarcasm is your métier, James." He's the third corner of an Oedipal triangle between a dead snake charmer and the sociopathic son who killed her. Even his handler, a kid in a coonskin cap, looks like some minor Twin Peaks character. "Lynchian" is not a term to be used lightly, but no character on the show so far has captured the deranged exuberance of the Eraserhead director's TV weirdos the way this one did.

Even Fish Mooney manages to swim her way into something interesting this week. Usually, the now-imprisoned crime boss's scenes flop around lifelessly, all the oxygen sucked out of them by Jada Pinkett-Smith's overacting. But while she still chews enough scenery to feed all her fellow inmates for a week, the physical context changes everything. When she gives her big rally-the-troops speech to the other prisoners, Mooney makes herself visible to the back of the crowd by delivering the address from the back of a muscular man on all fours — a funny, quasi-kinky bit of business that reinforces Fish's fem-dom bona fides and backs up her "I'm in charge now" words with action.

Her plan to get one over on the guards is even more savagely impressive. When she warned her new followers that some of them would die in her attempt to secure their freedom, it sounded like she was simply talking about the inevitable casualties of any war. But deaths aren't a side effect of her scheme — they're the centerpiece of it. Realizing they're being held captive by an organ harvesting ring, Fish orders the dungeon's biggest goons to beat to death anyone the guards come looking for, depriving them of their stock in trade. If the people running the prison cough up some concessions, she'll call off the dogs. Never mind the next-level realpolitik; it's the rare case of network-TV brutality that's clever as well as gruesome. That's no laughing matter.

Previously: Something to Crow About